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The Hebrew language has, in different periods, used various words to refer to miserly people: in Biblical Hebrew, the word is kilay or keilay; in Mishnaic Hebrew, tzaykan; and in post-Mishnaic Hebrew, kamtzan. In this essay, we delve into the etymologies of these three terms and find slight nuances emerge between the different words for “cheapskates” in the various stages of Hebrew.

The word kilay appears in only two places in the Bible, both in the same chapter (Isaiah 32:5, 32:7). Juxtaposed in the verses with the words shoa and nadiv (especially generous individuals) commentators like Radak understand that kilay means just the opposite: very careful about how much he gives to others, he is miserly and stingy. Such a person only expends money or effort in an excessively measured fashion.


Radak and Ibn Janach in their respective Sefer HaShorashim trace the word kilay to the triliteral root kaf-yod-lammed. Alternatively, Radak also suggests that kilay is derived from the root kaf-vav-lammed, which generally means “a measured quantifiable amount.”

On an exegetical plane, Ibn Ezra writes that we may interpret the word kilay as a portmanteau of the phrase ki yomar sheli sheli, “when [a person says] what is mine, is mine.” This is a veiled reference to the Mishnah (Avot 5:10) which famously states that there are four types of people in the world: Those who say “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” are mediocre people, or are like Sodomites; those who say “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine” are ignorant; those who say “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours” are pious; and those who say “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” are wicked (see Rabbeinu Yonah there).

The truth is that kilay in the sense of miser is a rather obscure and archaic Biblical Hebrew word, seemingly not used in Mishnaic Hebrew. The word experienced something of a resurgence in Medieval Sephardic circles but not Ashkenazic circles, for a very interesting reason: the Ashkenazic commentators understood the Biblical kilay as a derivative of the root nun-kaf-lammed (deceit or trickery), so they held that kilay refers not to a miser but rather a “trickster.” This is evident from the commentaries to Isaiah written by Rashi, Mahari Kara, and Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency. They were all influenced by Menachem Ibn Saruk’s Machberet Menachem, which traces the word kilay to the biliteral root kaf-lammed but categorizes it as related to words like nochel (Malachi 1:14), nichleihem (Numbers 25:18), and vayitnaklu (Genesis 37:18) – all referring to “treacherous plotting.”

Although tzaykan does not appear in the Bible, this word for miser does appear in the Mishnah: Pesachim 7:8 lays down the rules about how to get rid of paschal sacrifice that had become disqualified: If the sacrifice became ritually impure either in totem or by majority, then that meat ought to be burnt within the Temple complex on fires that were fueled by wood belonging to the Temple. If only a minority of the meat became impure, however, or if it became disqualified because it was left over beyond the time allotted to eating it, then the individual who owned said meat were responsible for burning it with fires fueled by their own wood. The tzaykanim come into the conversation because they would bring such meats to the Temple to be burnt so that they could benefit from the Temple’s wood and would not have to spend the money on using their own wood. Thus, the tzaykan is a cheapskate who would rather burn the disqualified sacrifice on the Temple’s dime rather than spending the money on wood himself.

Rashi (Pesachim 81b) explains that tzaykanim were stingy, ungenerous people. In doing so, Rashi uses a cognate of the word atzar (stop) to denote their efforts in “stopping” their money from reaching others (see also Rashi and Rabbeinu Chananel to Eruvin 49a).

The etymology of the term tzaykan is not readily obvious. Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (no relation) theorizes that tzaykan is derived from the Biblical Hebrew term tzuk/tzok (a narrow strait/ pressure) in the sense of the miser’s narrow-mindedness in terms of what causes deserve his monetary expenditure. Another possible etymology of this term lies in the Biblical Hebrew word mutzak, which refers to a hard metal. This hardness relates to the tzaykan’s stubbornness in that he is not easily ready to part with his own money.

The term tzaykan is a relatively rare word, but it does come up in some places. For example, the classical Mussar work Orchot Tzaddikim entitled his chapter on the virtue of frugality “Shaar HaTzaykanut.”

The post-Mishnaic Hebrew word for a cheapskate, kamtzan, is still used nowadays in modern Hebrew. It already appears in some versions of the Tosefta (Sotah 13:58) in the story of a Kohen who once took two portions of the Showbread and still only received a bean’s worth. Cognates of kamtzan appear in various places in the Talmud, especially in verb form. In some of those places, Rashi again uses a permutation of atzar to explain the kamtzan’s actions (see Rashi to Menachot 86a and Chullin 46a, as well as Rashbam to Bava Batra 52b).

The word kamtzan is clearly derived from the Biblical Hebrew root kuf-mem-tzadi, which appears seven times in the Bible. In all but one of those instances, this root refers to the kemitzah ritual performed on grain sacrifices (Leviticus 2:2, 5:12, 6:8, Numbers 5:26). Rashi explains that kemitzah entails using one’s middle three fingers to cover one’s palm and grab some flour, while brushing away with one’s thumb and pinky any excess flour ensuring that the quantity of whatever is inside the three fingers does not exceed the exact amount that can be held within those three fingers (Leviticus 2:2, Ketubot 8b, Zevachim 64b, Menachot 11a). Thus, the term kemitzah is related to the parsimonious behavior of the kamtzan, who both stores his own wealth without releasing it for others and always strives to minimize the amount that others can benefit from him.

Another word that seems to be derived from the root kuf-mem-tzadi is the Aramaic word kamtza. This term is commonly used by Targum for rendering such Hebrew words as arbeh (Proverbs 30:27), yelek (Nahum 3:15), and chagav (Numbers 13:33, Isa. 40:22) – all of which are synonyms for “grasshopper.” This perhaps relates to the concept of a kemitzah and kamtzan because a single grasshopper out of an entire swarm of locust essentially reflects a smaller quantity from within a much larger pool.

A famous rabbinic dictum reads: “the kometz cannot satisfy the lion” (Brachot 3b, Sanhedrin 16a). One way of understanding this is that a kometz refers to a paltry sustenance. Such small quantities are not enough to provide for the lion’s share, hence the above dictum. The connection to kamtzan in obvious. Alternatively, the term kometz here means “grasshopper” and the rabbis mean that eating a single grasshopper is not enough to satisfy the lion’s hunger (see Rashi to Sanhedrin 16a, Rashi to Ein Yaakov Brachot 3b, and Hagahot HaBach to Brachot 3b).

Another famous Rabbinic dictum is “Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, the Holy Temple was destroyed” (Gittin 55b). In this case, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza are proper names for Jews who lived at the end of the Second Temple period. However, Rabbi Chaim of Friedberg (a brother of the Maharal) in Sefer HaChaim offers a homiletical interpretation of that dictum by explaining that it refers to intergenerational stinginess (kamtzanut), which caused the Jewish People to lose their fear of Heaven and only care about themselves (see also Maharal’s Netzach Yisrael ch. 5 for more on the connection between kemitzah, Kamtza/Bar Kamtza, and grasshoppers).


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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.